Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Book Review)

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
by Alva Noë

Reviewed by Amy Ione

Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature endeavors to, as Alva Noë the author puts it, introduce art as “its own manner of investigation and its own legitimate source of knowledge” (p. xii) using the enactive approach that he has been working with for a number of years. According to this view, “experience is something we enact or perform; it’s not something that happens in us or to us” (p. 215), “it is something we do, or make, or achieve. And like everything else we achieve, we do so only against the background of our skills, knowledge, situation, and environment, including our social environment” (p. xii). His basic philosophical argument is that we can only understand the human mind in relation to bodily actions given that our experience is situational. Within this he claims that our lives are structured by organization and because art is a practice for bringing our organization into view, it reorganizes us.

When we consider art, Noë tells us, there are two levels we need to keep in mind. On the one hand, the defining feature of what he terms Level-1 activities is that they are basic and involuntary modes of organization. On the other hand, Level-2 activities play with and re-shape level-1 activities. The sum total is that active human experience is neither personal consciousness nor subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. It is not personal because it is interactive and (again) situational activities add meaning to our lives in a way that does not reduce to subpersonal (autonomic) consciousness. Since technologies are a part of how we reorganize our lives, and art is an engagement with technologies, art includes a second-level manner of organization/reorganization.

Noë chose to characterize art in terms of strange tools rather than technologies because he sees art as an engagement with the ways our practices, techniques, and technologies organize us; art is not a technological practice so much as a pursuit that presupposes such practices. Essentially, Noë tells us the tools that help us organize our lives are bound up with our habits. Regular tools aid us in performing our normal habits. But, for Noë, artistic goals — confrontation, intervention, and subversion — differ from ordinary ones. Thus, the “strange tools” that artists use aid them in disrupting and reorganizing the norms of communication:

“Art always disrupts business as usual and puts the fact that we find ourselves carrying out business as usual on display. Put bluntly: the value of art does not consist in a (coevolving) fit (or dialogue) between what we make and what we like, but rather in the practice of investigating and questioning and challenging such processes” (p. 238).

The strongest sections of the book are the personal stories. In these narratives Noë eloquently communicates about the many artists he has known over the years. We learn that his parents were artists and that he grew up within the vibrant New York City art community of Greenwich Village in the late twentieth century:

“For me, art … is personal. The question of art, the question of why it matters, what it is, how it figures in our lives, is in some ways my very first problem in philosophy. … I admit that this book’s central claim — that art is a philosophical practice and philosophy an artistic one — serves me rather well. It can be understood, finally, as my defense of philosophy and its value, a defense of my work, in the setting of my family’s engagement with art. If art is the most important thing, and philosophy is art, then it turns out I’m an artist after all. Look, Dad!” (p. 208).

Perhaps it is because the “problem of art” runs through his veins that this quite easy-to-read book so often loses its way; his exposition misses the variety of goals within art practices today and the range of historical art. His commentary on architecture shows how amorphous the definitions often are. Although he refers to his father as an “artist” throughout most of the book, he also tells us that, “My father was an architect … [and he] ran a bar in New York City. He used to say that he didn’t think of himself as having given up architecture when he took over the bar. Running the bar was, for him, an architectural practice” (p. 134). Noë’s varying characterizations of his Dad stood out because on several occasions Noë questions whether architecture is really an art. Architecture is “[a]lways on the verge of collapsing into mere design” (p. 116). He also observes that some define architecture as the most uncomfortable of all the arts because, as he explains it, artists are always concerned with wanting to “disturb everything that is already, as a matter of habit and background, in place,” so a true architecture, one that also qualifies as an art “would make uninhabitable spaces” (p. 116). Just as his father, an architect, was an artist, his mother, a potter, was also an artist: “a worker, a craftsperson, and yet hers, I maintain, was an artistic practice” (p. 134).

Whereas I am happy to accept that his parents were both artists, it is less clear who decides what art is and who qualifies as an artist within the situational perspective he proposes. One complication is that Noë thinks more in terms of design than creative insights. Generally, questions about whether or not a craftsperson or designer is also an artist are bantered about in terms of how and whether technical expertise differs from creative insight. His argument seems more along the lines that craft is functional and that artists break the rules. But, since his definitions are quite arbitrary and change from sequence to sequence, it is hard to really get a handle on what the “rules” are, who defines them, and how we resolve the “rules” with regard to stylistic and paradigm changes.

Like Noë, I am not a fan of reductionistic models that use neurobiological or evolutionary psychology tenets in ways that take the art out of art. Yet, although he integrated the ideas of many philosophers and thinkers (e.g., John Dewey and J. J. Gibson), the study was so tuned into showing that art and philosophy are comparable practices that the experiential arguments receded as I read. Largely this came about because I increasingly recognized that what Noë likes about both art and philosophy is that, to use his characterization, there are no breakthroughs, discoveries, results or findings in these fields. At least, “certainly not ones that invalidate or cancel out earlier ones or preclude future ones” (p. 136). Surely, this view is confirmed by all of those good philosophers who historically “proved” the existence of God using reason!!

Suffice it to say that Noë does not address philosophy in terms of the kinds of abstract arguments that prove God’s existence. Rather, he promotes the idea that philosophy has value even if we may not learn anything new: “you see everything you already knew in a new light. Philosophy leaves everything as it finds it but reorganizes the way you think and reason. Philosophy changes us. Philosophy aims not at discovery but at understanding” (p. 138).

Overall, five elements stood out as I absorbed Noë’s views. First, while the relationship between art and philosophy serves as a major thread throughout the study, science is largely peripheral. His overall philosophical package reminded me that one problem I have with neuroaesthetics theories is the way advocates suggest their philosophical theories are in fact scientific truths. Although Noë has problems with the same theories, he concludes that those who propose neuroaesthetic theories are not good philosophers. For him, art and philosophy are species of a common genus whose preoccupation is, again, the ways we are organized and with the possibility of reorganizing ourselves: “I don’t mean this is what artists think or say they are doing (although some will). I mean that this is what they are and have always been doing. And this is what philosophy does” (p. xiii).

Second, and by extension, Noë’s “art is philosophy” argument misrepresents the diversity of art and the diversity of opinions among scientists today and historically. More importantly, in my view, he overlooks the creative investigations that often link art and science investigations and the breakthroughs, discoveries, results or findings that often result. The outcome is that even as Noë introduces many types of art practices (visual art, dance, film, etc.) the content never captures art in terms of its commonalities with science. Leonardo readers will no doubt also notice that he does not convey the why and how of practices that are more broadly based or bring in people who work as both artists and scientists today (e.g., the artist/biologist Brandon Ballengée and the artist/neuroscientist Bevil Conway). Although he did mention a few canonical historical figures who have left behind work we can equate with both art and science projects (e.g., Leonardo and Galileo), Noë does not critically engage with both aspects of their practices simultaneously, or in a way that conceptualizes how and why both modalities informed their work. Had he done so perhaps I would have gained a fuller understanding of his “art is bad design on purpose” (p. 101) argument?

Third, as noted earlier in terms of architecture, the definitional problems throughout make it hard to track his ideas. For example, although Noë asserts: “neuroscience is too individualist and too internal to be a suitable science for the study of art” (p. 98), he does not explain precisely why. I understand that he is characterizing neuroscience as too internal because investigators look at brain processes rather than externally. But surely individualism is more a hallmark of art than neuroscience? Generally isn’t it the “individual” that is, by definition, absent from neuroscience? Since many of the results neuroscientists present are based on statistical compilations rather than individuals per se it seems Noë’s individual characterization runs counter to any normal sense of scientific studies. I presume the idea he is trying to convey is that neuroscience is too “individualistic” because it defines people as if they live in a unitary rather than a social sense? Another noteworthy definitional problem is in terms of “Why art is boring,” one of the chapters in the book, a particularly odd conception given his background and strong avowal of art. Essentially he says sure, art is boring, but sometimes it is boring the way religious rituals are boring and then notes, “not all art is boring” (p. 141).

Fourth, his critical analyses are quite cursory. For example, although he slams the “wildly false ideas” of Semir Zeki, both he and Zeki state their conclusions in Kantian terms. It is hardly surprising that their methodologies lead them to commonalities since the roots of both science and philosophy are in natural philosophy. Zeki’s embrace of Kantian philosophy is unusual for a neuroscientist. To Zeki’s mind: “Unfortunately, not enough neurobiologists have recognized the importance of [Kant’s] contribution to our subject.” [1] Noë, however, never considers their shared connection to Kant. What he does tell us is that Kant’s fundamental insight is that “If you try to deny the claims of universality implied in our aesthetic judgments, then you lose a grip on the phenomenon itself” (p. 261).

A short review cannot unpack why I find it astonishing that both rest their views on those of an eighteenth century pre-Darwinian natural philosopher. [2] Suffice it to say that Kant proposes two frames of reference. A priori truths are devoid of sensory input. The a posteriori, by contrast, is our situational reality and extends from knowledge and experience. Truths within the a posteriori require sensory input and cannot be obtained independently of the senses. In Kant’s eighteenth century world philosophies of mind and biology had quite different tenets than they do today in part because philosophies of mind were still seen in religious and God-created terms: Our bodies were designed by God and understanding their dynamics offered insight into His perfection. To grossly oversimplify, Kant, a philosopher who liked science and did no experiments, linked the a priori and a posteriori logically, even acknowledging that evidence of biological linkages was elusive. (This remains the case.) Whereas Zeki attempts to justify his proposals by incorporating a number of insights and technologies that reflect how our situational knowledge base has evolved, Noë sees Kant more as a musical score we can use to come to terms with our own proposals. He does not explain why we should think that a “score” based on the worldview of an eighteenth century philosopher illuminates situated sensory experience within our own epoch. It is more along the lines of the abstractions proving the existence of God. Given that Kant’s “reorganization” is built on a number of foundational premises that did not stand the test of time, from a situational perspective it seems that playing this “score” is more like moving the chairs around on the deck of the sinking Titanic than a path toward coming to grips with art’s complexity in the contemporary world.

Finally, many types of artists are excluded. Some of the people who work within traditional, even commercial, environments are unlikely to characterize their work in terms of subversive practice. In addition, there are the people who practice art simply because it is what they need to do — even if it is not how they earn their living. I would wager that for these people art is a passion and hardly boring. Roger Sperry (1913-1994) a talented sculptor, artist, and ceramicist is better known for the split brain research he did as a neuropsychologist and neurobiologist. His scientific research led to the Nobel Prize he shared with David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel in 1981, even as he produced art throughout his life. Charles Bell (1774-1842), also a neurologist, trained in both art and medicine. After Bell’s application for a professorial appointment at the Royal Academy of Arts in London was turned down he decided to devote himself to studies of the nervous system, although he continued to make and teach art. Many of the Pre-Raphaelites, who disliked the fashions of the Royal Academy, took classes with Bell, as did Arthur Conan Doyle, who modeled Sherlock Holmes’ acumen on Bell’s observational methods! There are many others I could add to this list.

In summary, Noë and I agree that art does not happen within the brain, that laboratory studies often skew what art looks like, and that communicating about art is worthwhile. Nonetheless, our sense of what we would like conversations about art, mind, and brain to include seem to exist in parallel worlds. I think we agree that an artist (or a group of collaborating artists) lives within the larger contextual space, so the social reality and not just the brain per se comes into play when work is produced, although he seems to minimize the brain’s involvement, which I find extraordinary given that he is a cognitive scientist. To my mind, even if the artist is telling a narrative story that is based within a social context, the process of artmaking includes neural processes. In other words, the brain is indubitably involved with artmaking, art viewing, and society. Certainly, to my mind, our inner processes and situational environment work together. Sure, we cannot reduce art (and the artist) cannot to any particular brain function; but artists cannot be fully encapsulated in terms of a contextual or situational position either.

At the end, Strange Tools did not reorganize my thinking about art. Rather, it confirmed my sense that I prefer the grittiness of scientific investigations. Evidentiary material seems more informative than philosophical meanderings, even given that I often do not agree with the theoretical conclusions scientists propose. At one point Noë tells us that when science and philosophy concern themselves with art they do so from on high. They seek to explain art. He wants to let art be the teacher, or at least a collaborator in the search for knowledge, since “it is its own legitimate source of knowledge” (p. xii). Yet, it seemed to this reviewer that the book didn’t do really showcase art in a way that even served to teach us. Despite the many paragraphs in which he talks about seeing and visual art, no images are included in the book, for example.

Ultimately, Noë’s “art is philosophy” conclusion led me to recall that Barnett Newman famously said, “Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds!” [3] It would be interesting to know if Noë is aware of Newman’s comment since the book mentions that Barnett Newman was a close friend of his father’s: “I was raised to take an interest in his work, although I don’t believe that we owned any of it” (p. 242). I imagine, were they to talk about this comment, Noë would respond as follow:

“What is at stake, finally, in aesthetic evaluation, is what kind of person you are. … The fact that philosophy is not a science … does not mean that philosophical disagreements are not real. They are real. They are objective. But what’s at stake is not the facts. What is at stake is how we assimilate, make sense of and, finally, evaluate the facts.

Art has value, then, exactly as philosophy has value. … [It] is the domain in which we grapple with what we already know (or think we know). It is the domain in which we try to get clear about the ways we think and respond and assign value” (p. 203).


Zeki, Semir. 2009. Splendors and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity, and the Quest for Human Happiness. Wiley-Blackwell, p. 153).

Ione, Amy. (forthcoming). Art and the Brain: Embodiment, Plasticity, and the Unclosed Circle. Amsterdam: Rodopi Brill.

Danto, Arthur C. 2003. The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art, The Paul Carus Lecture Series. Chicago, Ill: Open Court, p. 1.



Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature
by Alva Noë
Hill and Wang, NY: NY, 2015
304 pp. Trade: $28.00
ISBN: 978-0809089178.